insight magazine

IN Play: Q&A With Monica N. Harrison, CPA

The Chicago Sun-Times controller tells us why she calls herself a "non-traditional" accountant. By Eric Scott | Spring 2019

Monica Harrison-310Monica N. Harrison, CPA wants you to know she is a non-traditional accountant. In fact, she never could have imagined as a 17-year-old college student struggling to declare a major that one day she would oversee accounting and finance at one of the largest newspapers in the country. Fast-forward 20 years to a special day last year when she became controller at the Chicago Sun-Times after traveling down a very untraditional, yet rewarding, career path and you can see why her story is inspiring — even to her own mother, who followed in her academic footsteps and earned an accounting degree.

Q: Can you tell us a little about how you got to where you are?

Well, I am a first-generation college graduate. When I first started school, I thought I wanted to be a dermatologist; I changed my mind, declared a major in Spanish, and then later switched to communications sciences. After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s in communications sciences, I got my first job as a directory assistance operator for AT&T. I worked there for a couple of years before realizing it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I consider myself a nontraditional accountant because it wasn’t until later in life that I started working in the field and realized I was good at it.

After I passed a civil service exam, I went to work for the City of New Haven, Conn. as a payroll clerk. Four years later, I was promoted to a position in the accounting department monitoring community development block grants (CDBG) and state grants. I visited not-for-profit organizations that were federal and state grant recipients, reviewed their audits, and monitored their expenditures to ensure they were in compliance with the grant requirements. This was my first time working in the accounting field, and I had a supervisor who mentored me and showed me everything I needed for my job. It was through my jobs at the City of New Haven that I ultimately was inspired to go on to earn an MBA in finance at the University of New Haven and a master’s in accounting at the University of Hartford.

While pursuing my master’s in accounting, I was nominated by the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business to participate in a one-year fellowship program at the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB). This fellowship was a wonderful experience because it allowed me to view and understand accounting from a theoretical perspective. In 2016, I decided to move to Chicago to take a job with Ernst & Young in its Financial Accounting Advisory Services practice where I mainly helped clients with implementing the new revenue recognition standard. I also became a member of the Illinois CPA Society. Last year, I saw the Chicago Sun- Times was looking for a controller. I applied, and I was hired!

Q: Why was becoming a member of the Illinois CPA Society important to you?

I was a member of the Connecticut Society of CPAs before, and I think being a state CPA society member is just a great way to meet other professionals who are in the same industry as you. I’m also passionate about making a difference in the accounting and finance profession. I joined the Illinois CPA Society’s Women’s Connection Committee to contribute to making a difference for other women professionals, and the Society’s commitment to diversity is truly in line with my values, particularly the effort to reach out to minority students. I am also on the board of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), so I bring information that I learn at the Society back to the NABA board to help us in our efforts to educate students and help minorities get into the profession.

Q: Working for a major metropolitan newspaper isn’t exactly traditional either. What’s the best part about it?

Number one is the fact that I am responsible for the finances of this organization. I feel that what I do for the Chicago Sun-Times helps us maintain an important second voice in the city.

Second, we have many celebrities and political officials come into the building for interviews and I think that’s very exciting. Of course, the chatter in the newsroom also gets very exciting when we’re breaking stories that no one else is.

Q: What advice do you have for others hoping to find your success?

Be open, be flexible, be patient, and be present when you are in the job you currently have — you never know where it will lead. Passing the CPA exam was one of my greatest victories. I didn’t pass the exams the first time that I sat for them, which was very discouraging and frustrating, but I kept trying and, even though I didn’t have the traditional background, I eventually passed. If I can do it, anyone can do it!

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